If Steve Jobs is Frankenstein, The I-Phone is his Monster

If you love the novel Frankenstein, you will recognize that one of the downsides to your love is that every Halloween, it ends up falling to you to do the very annoying task of explaining to others that technically Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who creates the monster, not the name of the monster itself.

Should you not have already worn out your welcome (and you likely have), you might go on expounding on the many ways that the 1818 novel is so very different than the movie version.  Any of the movie versions. 

You might start by positing that in the novel, the monster is not a big, green, mindless brute.  Far from it.  The monster is brought to life, born so it were, as a blank slate of sensations and perceptions.  Gradually, (we find out) he comes to learn. He speaks.  He reads books.  He tries to love humanity.  But humanity decides it doesn’t love him back.  And so it is only after being rejected by his creator and everyone with whom he comes into contact (mainly for his ugliness) that he determines to be the villain, and (spoiler alert!) ends the novel by going on a killing spree. 

Nor is Viktor Frankenstein, the scientist who creates and animates the monster out of dead body parts, at all like the film version of himself.  For one, he is not at all mad. Not once does he ever scream, “It’s alive!”  On the contrary, he is full of burning, romantic desire to perform a great service for humanity.  To be fair, he is perhaps a bit short-sighted, and he undoubtedly makes poor choices about what kind of science experiments to pursue in service to his goal.  But his errors are more the fault of misplaced idealism than raving lunacy.

And for a horror novel, Frankenstein spends an awful lot of time dwelling on Viktor’s minor failures of interpersonal relationships.  It is not so much that Viktor is an out-and-out asshole, as he is just kind of negligent.  Once he moves away from his home town Geneva in order to pursue his scientific studies, he fails to write his father, keep in touch with his betrothed, or cultivate his friendships.  Yes. If your primary interest in Frankenstein is the body count, you probably won’t be disappointed, but along the way, there is quite a lot in the way of long-nature walks and detailed descriptions of the emotional state of Viktor, the emotional state of Viktor’s monster, the emotional state of Viktor’s acquaintances, and the emotional state of Viktor’s friends and family.

What is all this doing in a novel that is primarily about one’s man folly in trying to take the place of God by creating a living man out of dead body parts?  Well, I don’t think it is just filler.  Shelley describes Viktor as a man without a social compass who forgets to stop and smell the roses, I think, because she sees these secondary follies as intimately bound up with his primary mistake.  Take for, instance, Viktor’s description of his feverish race to complete the monster, a scene which any workaholic with a deadline and a half-way compelling project will instantly understand.

the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time, but I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination. I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.”

The lesson seems pretty clear: had Viktor been a little more ambitious for domestic bliss and a little less ambitious for universal glory, he would have spared himself quite a lot of pain.     

Indeed, it is a matter of some contention whether creating the monster even was Viktor’s major mistake, since Shelley keeps wide open the possibility that the creature might have turned out fine if he just had gotten a little love, that is, if Viktor had stayed to raise the thing he created rather than running out of the room without so much as a second glance.   As it stands, Viktor formed a rational creature so horrible-looking that only a mother could love it, when alas, the creature had no mother, only a workaholic father.

Thus, the embittered Frankenstein ends the novel by chasing the creature to the arctic, trying vainly to destroy the thing that he had once considered a great benefit to humanity, but that he had come to recognize as a blight on mankind.  And the quest was vain, of course, because had Viktor caught the creature, he couldn’t have laid a finger on him anyways, since to perfect the metaphorical possibilities, Viktor had created a technological marvel who was literally stronger than any man’s ability to control or to kill.

Modern cinema has retold the main tale of Frankenstein a thousand times: man, caught up in the hubris of whether he can do something, doesn’t stop to think if he should.  Whatever that something was gets out of control.  Then, that something destroys man, thereby teaching man a lesson about not playing God.  On one occasion at least, the monster has been an island full of genetically-engineered man-beasts; on now five occasions, it’s been an island full of genetically-engineered dinosaurs, and on countless occasions, it’s been some version of artificial intelligence that got the better of its creators.  But rarely have Hollywood adaptations been as attentive as their source material to the preoccupations of the creators themselves or explicitly told the story like Frankenstein did, where the creator possesses absolutely terrible social skills and those terrible social skills bleed into his or her short-sighted decisions about unleashing dubious technologies on the rest of us (Ex Machina is a recent notable and fantastic exception).

Modern cinema doesn’t necessarily have to do this intellectual work for us though since Silicon Valley is filled with all sorts of latter-day Viktors and their technological monsters.

Frat boys from Stanford create an app where photos disappear a few seconds after sending.  What people get down to using it for comes as no surprise to anyone. 

The founder of Twitter thinks it’s a great idea to compress our public discourse into 140 characters.  Less than a decade later, we have our first Twitter president, and the whole platform is practically Candyland for trolls, scammers, and outrage artists.

But nowhere is this second (and far more interesting) lesson from Frankenstein more relevant than at Apple.  Because no one personality ever so perfectly encapsulated the Viktor paradigm than did Steve Jobs, a man with a mile-long list of “accomplishments” who was nevertheless exceedingly mean to his employees and coworkers, conniving and scheming to his rivals, and nearly abusive to the daughter whom he long denied was his. 

In reflecting on the apparent paradox, one Business Insider article headlined it like this: “Jobs Had remarkable achievements—and was unbelievably cruel.”  The implication being that it’s hard to figure out how to feel about a man whose professional legacy was so positive and whose personal life was so miserable, and that the universe gives no real clarity or insight on how to balance such a man’s merits and demerits, except to acknowledge that great men sometimes have personal failings.

I think such an appraisal quite misses an important point, which, as Frankenstein tried to warn us, might go rather differently, something like: we shouldn’t be at all surprised if the crowning, professional achievement of a cruel, cold, and borderline abusive personality is a device that allows us to detach from real social engagement with the people around us, or that such a device would make us all measurably unhappier, more anxious and more depressed for use of it.   

To glean from Frankenstein the lesson that man shouldn’t play God seems a worthwhile, but almost banal lesson. Here is a far more interesting one.  Those who are no friends to humans are unlikely to be any friend to humanity.  And if Steve Jobs is Viktor Frankenstein, we ought not to be at all surprised that the smartphone is a monster.